“Manso!” The Transformational Potential of School-Community Projects
The transformative potential of place-based, project-based learning reaches beyond the classroom and the school site. When teachers, students and community mentors come together to engage in meaningful place-based inquiry and collaboration, the learning process, the project, and the products(s),
- Hold deeper meaning for students, teachers, and community members
- Inspire authentic inquiry and curiosity
- Impact both school and community culture
- Harmonize interdisciplinary content
- Include long-range K-12 instructional potential
During the 2016-2017 school year, Simon Tajiri, Hawaiian Studies Kumu at Lana’i High and Elementary School involved more than 400 K-12 LHES students, several dozen teachers, and hundreds of community members in a year-long History, ELA, and Hawaiian Studies project which culminated in a series of murals depicting the key moments and themes of the 1951 Pineapple Strike.
Mural depicting Pedro Dela Cruz, “father” of the 1951 Pineapple Strike
“I was sitting on this project for a few years,” Simon recalled, “but I didn’t know how to get it done.”
Simon was one of the first seven members of the school’s (PB)2 (Place-Based, Project-Based) cohort. Together, they’d identified unique strengths and needs of their students and community and constructed an overarching, collective Driving Question for their projects: “How does environment shape culture and culture shape environment?” During Year One, Simon supported several classroom projects, most notably the seminal 3rd Grade “Lana’i Town Square Project.” During the second year, year, he felt ready to spearhead his own project.
“Over the last year, I came to realize that the process is far more important than the product itself. I learned to be more comfortable trusting the group as a whole—the community, the teachers and the kids–to take it where it needed to go.”
On a more personal level, Simon gained, “the courage to be true to the story, and to let the students tell it like it is.
Simon understood the success of this school/community project hinged on the same human characteristics of the 1951 strike itself: guts, passion, faith, and grit.
As is the case with most student-centered projects, its success also hinged on careful coordination and planning. Simon immediately reached out to Aunty Jesse Figueres- Myers, and asked her to assume the role of project liaison and “story-collector.”
Simon grew up on Lana’i. He knew Aunty Jesse would be the perfect community collaborator.
“Aunty Jesse felt it in her gut. She immediately felt an ethical, spiritual and moral connection to the project.” Simon recalled.
Simon’s implied Hawaiian Studies-based Driving Question (what I call the “teacher-facing” DQ), is a question he often heard from students:
“Why do I need to learn about this culture, even though I’m not Hawaiian?”
Simon hoped the Pineapple Strike Mural Project would help students understand the ancestral, cultural, and historical intersections between Hawaiians and other local cultural groups that faced (and, in some cases, still face) cultural oppression, economic inequity, and fragmentation.
Aunty Jesse began collecting stories, visiting the older folks who had lived through the legendary 221 day strike, and just talking story. Jesse and Simon discovered the importance of giving people the space to tell their stories in their first language.
“The people we interviewed needed to use their first language to really get at the nuanced, really hard questions we wanted them to explore,” Simon noted.
Aunty Jesse spoke the language, and she translated them into English to share with Kumu Simon.
Simon knew if he wanted students of all ages to grapple with complex sociocultural, intersectional realities embedded in the narrative of the strike–issues like racism, wage inequality, labor solidarity, sexism, ecology, and resilience–he would need to take the stories Aunty Jesse translated, and translate them yet again, into language that would “hook” students from age five to fifteen.
So he did. By considering his audience, and being honest about where they actually were with respect to their island’s history (not inherently interested), Simon created the one most impactful entry event I’ve ever seen.
All he did was tell them the stories in a very special, student-centered way, changing up the tone as needed for the different grade levels.
When Simon recounted the stories, he gave them the heft and gravity of legend. He spoke of the Pineapple workers as the superheroes they actually were.
“Ho! How you like picking that much pineapple all day long? These aunties and uncles picked hundreds and hundreds of pineapples every single day. They never wen stop until the whistle blew. And their hands stay all bus’ up, and the wind wen blew the red dirt right through the cloth right down their throats, and you think they stay hot? And you think they stay thirsty?”
“Yes!” Eyes wide. Voices whispering. Every single student right there with the uncles and aunties in the field.
“Yeah they were! But they wen get up and they wen go back da next day when that whistle wen blow again.”
He went on to tell them the story of how the “Manso Gang” won the great Pineapple Picking race, and how their ralling cheer, “Manso!” meant something really special to them. To the Manso women, it meant several things at once. It meant “let’s go,” it meant the sound a whip makes. It also meant “pay attention!” and “go slow to go fast.”
Simon’s knew something special was happening when he started hearing students shouting “Manso!” on the playground and at athletic events.
A “Manso Woman” giving the sign to start picking.
By the time the students began digging into the details of 1951 strike, the workers were very real to them, and, at the same time, larger than life. Union leader Pedro Dela Cruz, the brave and outspoken, rallied the workers to push for better working conditions, better pay, and a place at the bargaining table. He inspired the community to join together, all races and cultures, to achieve a common goal. They shared food and planted gardens. They built a clubhouse where the keiki played games and the makua talked politics. It was a statewide strike, but only the tiny island of Lana’i refused to give in. After 221 days, the Pineapple workers were invited to the bargaining table with the bosses, and the bosses were forced to concede.
All 400 students drew the images they saw most clearly in their imaginations as they listened to the stories. They worked in groups to decide which images best conveyed the story of the workers, then distilled and combined the images to conform to the four-panel mural constraints. Artists from the community took the students ideas and images, drew up some sample renderings, the students reviewed, approved, and got to work.
During the painting process, community members were invited to place their handprints on the murals. Hundreds of handprints, all races, all ages, all backgrounds.
One morning, after the murals were unveiled, the students gathered around to admire their work and talk about the process. Then Kumu Simon told them he had some very special guests coming. He had invited some of the real Manso Women to come and meet them.
On cue, a few older women approached.
There were gasps.
“That’s MY GRANDMA!”
“That’s MY AUNTY!”
“My Aunty is a Manso Woman!”
Before this project, they had never seen their grandmas and aunties as feminist superheroes. Before this project, they had never seen their uncles as courageous civil rights leaders who used their voices and ingenuity to send a unified, universal message:
“Together, we can survive without you, but you can’t survive without us.”
Through the project, the students, teachers, and community members of Lana’i heard, felt, explored, and discussed weighty concepts. In the process, they had come to understand the power and importance of their island legacy.
“This has always been a place where apathy is the rule,” Simon reflected, “where people don’t like to talk about hard things. It feels like a completely different place now.”
“You’ll never know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re from.”